Now What? Why is the 2010 Census So Short?

Now What? Why is the 2010 Census So Short?

Why the 2010 census won't be as detailed a genealogical resource as earlier enumerations—and how you can help out future family historians.

Q. US census records are invaluable in my research. Just yesterday, I received the new 2010 census and I was surprised to see how little was asked compared to earlier census records. For example the 2010 census only asked names of residents and their ages and race, and if we own or rent our home. When you compare that to the 1930 census, you’ll find other questions relating to origin and origin of parents, education and other details. I guess these records will have little research value to anyone trying to put together their family history.

A. The census nowadays does indeed ask fewer questions than in years past, to the disappointment of genealogists across the United States.

In 1940, the Census Bureau began using a short, 34-question form for most people, and a longer questionnaire for a percentage of the population. Similar methodology continued through 2000, with the exception of 1980, when everyone received a long form. Now, though, there’s only a short form.

But as convenient and beloved a record as it is, the census was never intended as a resource for genealogists. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution requires a population count every 10 years for the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives. The count also affects how more than $400 billion per year in federal funding is distributed to state, local and tribal governments.

The government has merely used the census as a convenient way to learn about its constituents. The constitution doesn’t require names or other information be recorded (indeed, until 1850, only the name of the head of each household was written down), but the law requires you to answer all the questions on the census. Click here to learn why the 2010 questions were asked.

There are better ways for the government to get the other data it seeks: The long questionnaire has been replaced by the American Community Survey, sent to a small sampling of the population every year, instead of every 10 years.

The census is actually expensive to carry out: The 2010 census is expected to cost $15 billion. Interestingly, if every household completes and mails back its census form, they could save the government an estimated $1.5 billion in follow-up costs.
2010 census forms are being digitized and will become available to future researchers in 72 years. What’s a genealogist to do about the paucity of juicy details? Make sure you leave behind other information about your life and your family members’ lives in the form of written accounts and photos, copies of personal records (including that short census form), and of course, your compiled research. For more suggestions on how to be a good ancestor, see the August 2010 Family Tree Magazine (on newsstands June 8).

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